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A New Dialogue Redux

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Original Doc: A New Dialogue – Original

A New Dialogue Redux

The central concerns of the following text focuses on addressing the cultural meanings attributable to form, and initiate a discursive dialogue with respect to the inherency of meanings which potentially reside within forms themselves.

The former instantiation of this text was written for a conference DeSForM: Design & Semantics of Form and Movement in the Netherlands which purpose is to develop a platform of products that communicate information through a dynamic language of form and movement. The question posed by the organizers was how might we set forth to design this system of symbols in a systematic and scientific manner. The meaning of form is a human production, as it is both malleable and undefined. As a cultural construct, it has the potential to consecrate meaning as well as confound it. New definitions of form semantics can be revealed through the examination of the intersection of human behavior and emerging technological discourse in the present social climes, a language of form and movement cannot be designed, but a platform in which this language can emerge through negotiation can be.

Form Has No Meaning
The capability and meaning of any form can be defined by the limits of people’s ability to imagine what it can be physically or represent spiritually or intangibly. In essence, form has no meaning; it is an invitation, a window to possible relationships which produce a myriad of meanings. Meaning resides, and is latent within us, in the relationships we perceive and cultivate in our minds and through what we negotiate with others.

What can we learn from these characteristics of forms and how can we, as designers, challenge the need for designing explicit meanings?

How can we create a new dialogue between objects and people to harness the emergent properties of meaning within the human experience?

Time Matters. Location matters. Context matters.
Form triggers multiple meanings. A gun locked safely at a hunting lodge has entirely different denotative and connotative associations than the same gun in the hands of a man in a dark alley. The sign itself, the gun and its function, within the context of alternative environments, is pollinated with probable outcomes that are associated with location and situation. Context influences interpretation of the purpose of that form, shaping the message it conveys. It is through the process of negotiating meaning between social actors, place and location, that form evokes multiple meanings, and likewise meanings can inspire multiple forms. Physical properties in differing contexts can trigger landscapes of ulterior meanings around and between people determined by their personally and culturally informed associations. Context again alters the meanings that forms and motions may trigger, influencing their social role at a given time. The introduction of new information and the mutation of old information alters associated meanings because of what is accumulated, paired and lost during the reallocations and migrations of forms in multiple contexts.

How can we enable forms to embrace this continual process of the production of meaning? Is it our objects that adapt, or do we?

Can a form change its mode of expression to fit those who are present?

How can a single meaning be maintained through multiple modes of expression in multiple contexts?

How can these unfolding dialects, migrations and morphologies of the compositionality of meaning over time be documented?

Will context be the dominant hypermedia form? Will it be the request, the curator, the aggregator and synthesizer in relation to ones identity and state, emotional, situational and physical context?

Meaning and Functionality

Functionality affords meaning through the use of an object. Meaning is cultivated through experience, not by what the thing is supposed to be. Through the process of doing, understanding and participating with a given form, a sense of meaning is developed. Emerging forms that possess processing and communicative capabilities add a new layer to form. It makes the form variable and responsive. Forms were formerly limited by their physical capabilities, and to the imagination of those who encounter them. However, once they are enabled, and networked, they will have a new breadth of roles, social relationships and possible meanings that are physically bound to place, yet extend and include that which is beyond place borders.

How can these new roles and relationships be felt, visualized and animated through form and motion?

Things enable behaviors, and behaviors find themselves eventually as forms. All of the forms of our built environment are signifiers of behaviors that bind beneficial material and immaterial relationships.

There are levels of meaning that satisfy multiple levels of self, such as our immediate physical, mental and spiritual needs. These levels of meaning can be realized and attained through interfacing with a solitary form. This can be observed in the specialized context of jail, as prisoners draw on a restrictive palette of materials and forms, shaping a wide selection of objects that perform various functions and hold widely different values [Angelo] Through the reshaping of one form, prisoners can satisfy different levels of human needs. The toothbrush can be multiple things at once. At a given time it can be a shiv , a tool for cleaning teeth, or a carved piece of art.

It is our motivations that curate the relationships we engage in to trigger revelations of what things can be, and what meanings those relationships bring. We perceive context and conditions that we are participants within, and we forge our own meanings; in turn we can contribute this meaning in a shared dialogue to negotiate normative ones.

What can we learn from this perceptive ability of people and the potentiality of form?

How can objects be sensitive to our goals? Can they be literate to our actions? How can we better equip them to help us achieve?

Will a language of form and movement inevitably produce a Universal Homogenous dialect, or alternatively will a heterogeneous explosion of dialects evolve?

Can contextual mapping and meaning mapping over time be achieved to form a living document capturing a language unfolding in real time?

Form Collapses Possibility
Forms alone do not collapse possibility, but the essentialist framing of forms that associate a sole meaning to a form neuter ones perception to imagine what the form can do or be. Forms will be a platform of dialogue: they will be simultaneously the substrate of a question or goal, the expression of a possible answer, and a passport to exploration of possibility.

Kevin Kelly of Wired has been developing a blog “Street Use”[Kelly] about how objects are repurposed to fit specific needs of people. The blog exhibits fryer baskets that are made into antennae, and regular pick-up trucks that are re-appropriated as highly reinforced armed assault vehicles in Iraq. These interventions are a testament to not only possibility inherent in forms, but also to the multiple potentials people see in them as a way to facilitate their goals. The idea of forms having multiple meanings can be substantiated by the fact that meaning is emergent. This is why we cannot design semantics in a systematic and scientific way, for they are individually variable, as well as culturally and socially formed. The failure of Esperanto and the success of Creole and Pidgin languages [Diamond] illustrate this vividly.

Have we considered how this inherent human characteristic of emergence can be harnessed, socially and individually through forms that are literate of human intent?

Real Time Graz”[Ratti] is a project where GPS mapping of cell phone trajectories is used to illustrate the nomadic portrait of people in the city; this information describes in a rather low resolution how people use space. These traces of flow are then used to inform the emerging shape of the city to complement how space is actually used. “The BCN Formula Game” [Hubers] has taken this further by developing software that generates building proposals for Barcelona in real time through modeling software that creates structures in response to flows of people, traffic and commercial activities.

How can our traces influence the language of form and movement to best-fit context and particular actors in real time?

In general, the most valid current definitions of forms, which are the ones most widely and currently understood, are the ones that are commonly applied day to day. How can we allow for these definitions to evolve and be continually negotiated? The Association of Robotic Architecture & the Bureau of Responsive Architecture work together to develop responsive architectures that adapt to changing functions as well as environmental conditions. These architectures have fluid form/function relationships. On an object level Dynamic Textures has developed the idea of a coffee cup made of a thermally sensitive polymer that sprouts spikes on the exterior if the content of the cup exceeds a safe temperature. [Tsu] The future may depend on building upon existing senses and semiotics as they have evolved over time. We can devise new modes of communication through form based on our native capabilities of recognition, understanding and sharing.

It will take time to learn to “read” newly emerging responsive architectures and objects as innately as we respond to natural events. Only after we have interfaced with them on an ongoing basis will we be able to effortlessly understand them. For example, being able to understand the state of the internal social dynamics of a building by observing its shape from down the street, or recognizing the state of the contents of a container by its visual attitude from across the room at a glance. It will take time and communication between people to form a consensus of a shared meaning associated with the expression of animate forms; however, we also need to allow for change, and polysemous meanings in this process.

Can our signs become deeper participants and documenters of this process?

We are all producers of meaning; form triggers these meanings or the production of new ones, but holds no inherent meaning itself. Objects or produced forms are codified, commoditized beliefs, intent and behaviors. However, there is a big difference between what an object can do, and what an object is meant to do. Moreover, there is a difference between what an object is supposed to mean and the meaning that people attribute to it. Meaning is myth. The desire to understand, unfold, know and create unique perspectives has been overshadowed by the traditional way of perceiving forms as hyperlinks to a normative known. By diverting philosophical meaning and understanding to that which is static and consumable we destroy whole landscapes of unique expansions on the ‘meaning’ of anything.

Disruptions such as Geocaching, context aware gaming and location based technologies alter the production and perception of meanings in a space as well as the forms within. Context aware games like Pacmanhattan [Bloomberg] transform the streets of New York into a dual virtual physical Pacman playspace. In Japan the game Mogi [Tester] requires players to discover hidden virtual items; these experiential properties transform the perception and the meaning of what that space is. Shifting meaning can be achieved by something as simple as a laptop in a park: the park then becomes a studio. A personal phone transforms whatever space it is in into a bank, a mailbox, a warzone, a voting booth or a gamespace. Meaning is brought to places and objects by people as we encounter them, and the properties of these spaces and objects afford the kind of meaning that may be manufactured.

Platform For Emergence – Users Sketching Experiences
By providing the conditions and tools within objects themselves we can create an open platform for naturally unfolding semantics. If we are to create a language of form and movement, then its core elements should embrace the emergent nature of meaning.

Embracing emergence requires an object to have a recognition and memory of what happens around them, building a history or narrative of change. In addition to expressive capabilities and the ability to build on the past, these forms should have the plasticity to allow transformation in all of its capabilities to adapt to people in the present. A form will be able to observe the world around it, but human participation with it will continually re-define what it is, to re-contextualize the purpose of its form, expanding the experiences it may elicit. These forms should be aware of this process of emergent meaning if they are to be deeper participants of social practice. The forms that comprise our objects and spaces are igniting a new dialogue when they explicitly become a form of media and interface. Building a living framework of consideration, by engaging in an inquiry around the proprieties and impact of such a platform of dialogue will be helpful in determining which capabilities are most necessary.

As we create enabled and communicative forms that comprise our objects and spaces, we will require an equal consideration of both the digital and the physical aspects. The new method should consider relationships that are happening between things and people in spaces. The attention and sensitivity we prescribe to physical representation and expression of associated meaning has to be directly proportional to that which we devote to the sensing, processing, understanding, storing and sharing in the ecology of meaning surrounding it. This language will enable a new spectrum of authoring and expression of meaning. The following are characteristics of expressive forms that should be considered:

• Awareness and Memory
• Expression and Literacy
• Transformation: an element that is pervasive in all the others

Awareness and Memory
We leave traces of ourselves behind as every moment passes. Streams of gestures, wafts of pheromones, a wake of heat, a dynamic gait emanating a chorus of continuous audio. This species of media is the most valuable; it is the unfolding map of ones self. When these individual maps are read on a larger scale it is the Map of Us, it is the combined interactions and behaviors of communities of people that illustrate underpinning motivations, intents, and shared meanings. Objects, equipped with the culmination of several maturing and emerging technologies, including sensing technologies, have the potential to seek the meanings of our traces, and observe their composition and morphology over time. This raises the opportunity for objects to be cartographers of experience, to be moment hunters and stenographers, seekers of the zeitgeist of place.

Our immaterial traces are codified in an array of manifestations. Objects can be seen as traces of beneficial behaviors. Architecture and civic spaces are traces of social formations. As you read this sentence you are encountering traces of thoughts, codified in type. The sensory perception capability of things is directly proportional to its ability to read not only the physical but also the invisible relationships that sculpt our environment. Most of today’s objects and spaces are blind, deaf and mute, however, scores of new capabilities are migrating to the shores and guts of products, and are being woven into the very fabric of architecture. It’s not about the objects or spaces themselves, but of them as images, products of what happens in-between. They will increasingly become a form of socio-cultural barometers that aid in the flows in ways that they have never before.

The shared memory of this network will be as beneficial and as epic as the impact of the World Wide Web. It will be a living documentation of our memetic propagation, and our behavior in the physical environment, and its resulting effect on the shaping of the environment itself.

How can we enable a co-evolution and interplay between our personal traces, and objects and spaces?

How will our “pasts” converse with, and enhance, our present experience?

How will our present physical, situational and emotional context contribute to what is displaying?

Expression And Literacy

Blogs such as Information Aesthetics and We Make Money Not Art [Debatty] successfully showcase emerging practices and developments in object expression including and form and movement showcased from sources as varied as basements, art galleries, and university laboratories. The projects are tagged and tracked to reveal how memes catch on and how methods evolve.

What if the projects, the Objects themselves circulate and share these developments?

What can we learn from heraldry, patina and natural expression, such as a ripening fruit, as a pre-existing historical or natural form of communication?

Communication between objects will, in the beginning, work in chorus to combine sensor capabilities, processing power, storage, expressions, behaviors, and share memories, to understand and render responses to meaning. Our meanings will be derived from our behaviors in context, read by objects, which become a responsive porous vessel, a new form of media. They are becoming dynamic content.

This language of form and movement has been around forever. Throughout the course of a day we may employ about a thousand words, however, we express 30,000 facial expressions, and 5,000 hand and bodily gestures [Danesi]. Most of our communication happens through our visual interpretation of form and movement. We can “read” clouds, water and the landscapes of rock and of flesh. Undoubtedly, if we were to propose a semantic framework for form and movement, we should employ the wealth of experience in our literacy of displayed behavior.

Expressive capabilities are already migrating from screens to the surfaces and movements of objects for public use. Such is the case with Ambient Devices [2], a Massachusetts based startup, pioneered by graduates of the MIT media lab. Their products enable data from the internet to be translated into personally programmed color and movements in forms such as The Orb, which can display stock information, weather or any other information from the Ambient Information Network. The Inflating USB key [Komissarov] alters its size in relation to how much data is stored on it. Email erosion [Ham; Muilenberg] is a more art centric piece that aims to display relationships that are usually invisible. EmailErosion is a project that uses a water-soluble block as a display; incoming emails cause flows of water to alter the form of the block in proportion to the flows of email. Alternatively, the broadband cord project [Weiser; Seely Brown] displays data packet flows in physical space through servos that shake the cord in accordance to Internet activity. These projects are examples of how this language is alive and its evolution underway.

Due to the emergent properties of meaning we cannot design semantics in a systematic and scientific way, for they are individually variable, culturally and socially formed. Instead, we should provide the conditions and tools that create a platform for semantics to unfold naturally, because people already shape form and produce meaning around them continually. If an enhanced dialogue with the environment is to evolve through a language of form and movement, then it will be sensitive and responsive to context and identities of people in the transformative process of meaning making.

How can we begin to bring into motion a platform to allow the public to assist in the creation and evolution of this language?

Enabling characteristics that thrive off of the morphology of meaning, rather than being threatened by it, turns a very difficult problem into an opportunity. This approach includes and complements the ongoing development of forms that communicate. The future of design is not in form or movement, color or texture, but in the temporal curation of relationships within changing landscape of social practice.

Tim O’Reilly said that Web2.0 applications change with use, the more people use them the better they get. This isn’t merely accounting for the threshold of viability that is expressed in how social software thrives off of social activity. People additionally change the software through using it. This happens because web behavior is recorded and responded to by developers engaged in a perpetual beta, and users themselves contribute to API’s and SDK’s adding value and functionality to the scripts.

Products and spaces too are in perpetual beta, however the climate of behavior that surrounds then is currently not recordable outside of labs and basement studios. The Nintendo Wii is a weak signal that points toward such products due to its ability to identify and respond to motion, that however is only one dimension. A stronger signal is Bungie Studios, Halo creator and Microsoft affiliated game laboratory which simultaneously observes many human dimensions to improve the user experience associated with gameplay. It is foreseeable that products will have the capability to house “Bungies” in their shells. Users will one day sketch future experiences, products, services and spaces through their mere interaction with them. A future Google result for Sketching User Experiences may return – Did you mean: Users sketching experiences?


Written by rthomas

March 19, 2008 at 7:47 pm

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